Subido por Ángel Ceballos

Steven Pressfield - The war of art

Winning the Inner Creative Battle
The Profession (2011)
Killing Rommel
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Last of the Amazons
Tides of War
Gates of Fire
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Ebook Distribution By
by Robert McKee
Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me. He
undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it
expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for
procrastination. I can procrastinate thinking about my
procrastination problem. I can procrastinate dealing with my
problem of procrastinating thinking about my procrastination
problem. So Pressfield, that devil, asked me to write this
foreword against a deadline, knowing that no matter how
much I stalled, eventually I’d have to knuckle down and do
the work. At the last possible hour I did, and as I leafed
through Book One, “Defining the Enemy,” I saw myself
staring back guilty-eyed from every page. But then Book Two
gave me a battle plan; Book Three, a vision of victory; and as
I closed The War of Art, I felt a surge of positive calm. I now
know I can win this war. And if I can, so can you.
To begin Book One, Pressfield labels the enemy of creativity
Resistance, his all-encompassing term for what Freud called
the Death Wish—that destructive force inside human nature
that rises whenever we consider a tough, long-term course of
action that might do for us or others something that’s actually
good. He then presents a rogue’s gallery of the many
manifestations of Resistance. You will recognize each and
every one, for this force lives within us all—self-sabotage,
self-deception, self-corruption. We writers know it as “block,”
a paralysis whose symptoms can bring on appalling behavior.
Some years ago I was as blocked as a Calcutta sewer, so what
did I do? I decided to try on all my clothes. To show just how
anal I can get, I put on every shirt, pair of pants, sweater,
jacket, and sock, sorting them into piles: spring, summer, fall,
winter, Salvation Army. Then I tried them on all over again,
this time parsing them into spring casual, spring formal,
summer casual . . . Two days of this and I thought I was going
mad. Want to know how to cure writer’s block? It’s not a trip
to your psychiatrist. For as Pressfield wisely points out,
seeking “support” is Resistance at its most seductive. No, the
cure is found in Book Two: “Turning Pro.”
Steven Pressfield is the very definition of a pro. I know this
because I can’t count the times I called the author of The
Legend of Bagger Vance to invite him for a round of golf, and
although tempted, he declined. Why? Because he was
working, and as any writer who has ever taken a backswing
knows, golf is a beautifully virulent form of procrastination.
In other words, Resistance. Steve packs a discipline forged of
Bethlehem steel.
I read Steve’s Gates of Fire and Tides of War back-to- back
while traveling in Europe. Now, I’m not a lachrymose guy; I
hadn’t cried over a book since The Red Pony, but these novels
got to me. I found myself sitting in cafés, choking back tears
over the selfless courage of those Greeks who shaped and
saved Western civilization. As I looked beneath his seamless
prose and sensed his depth of research, of knowledge of
human nature and society, of vividly imagined telling details,
I was in awe of the work, the work, all the work that built the
foundation of his riveting creations. And I’m not alone in this
appreciation. When I bought the books in London, I was told
that Steve’s novels are now assigned by Oxford history dons
who tell their students that if they wish to rub shoulders with
life in classical Greece, read Pressfield.
How does an artist achieve that power? In the second book
Pressfield lays out the day-by-day, step-by-step campaign of
the professional: preparation, order, patience, endurance,
acting in the face of fear and failure—no excuses, no bullshit.
And best of all, Steve’s brilliant insight that first, last, and
always, the professional focuses on mastery of the craft.
Book Three, “The Higher Realm,” looks at Inspiration, that
sublime result that blossoms in the furrows of the professional
who straps on the harness and plows the fields of his or her
art. In Pressfield’s words: “When we sit down each day and
do our work, power concentrates around us . . . we become
like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come.
Insights accrete.” On this, the effect of Inspiration, Steve and I
absolutely agree. Indeed, stunning images and ideas arrive as
if from nowhere. In fact, these seemingly spontaneous flashes
are so amazing, it’s hard to believe that our unworthy selves
created them. From where, therefore, does our best stuff
It’s on this point, however, the cause of Inspiration, that we
see things differently. In Book One Steve traces Resistance
down its evolutionary roots to the genes. I agree. The cause is
genetic. That negative force, that dark antagonism to
creativity, is embedded deep in our humanity. But in Book
Three he shifts gears and looks for the cause of Inspiration not
in human nature, but on a “higher realm.” Then with a poetic
fire he lays out his belief in muses and angels. The ultimate
source of creativity, he argues, is divine. Many, perhaps most
readers, will find Book Three profoundly moving.
I, on the other hand, believe that the source of creativity is
found on the same plane of reality as Resistance. It, too, is
genetic. It’s called talent: the innate power to discover the
hidden connection between two things—images, ideas, words
—that no one else has ever seen before, link them, and create
for the world a third, utterly unique work. Like our IQ, talent
is a gift from our ancestors. If we’re lucky, we inherit it. In the
fortunate talented few, the dark dimension of their natures will
first resist the labor that creativity demands, but once they
commit to the task, their talented side stirs to action and
rewards them with astonishing feats. These flashes of creative
genius seem to arrive from out of the blue for the obvious
reason: They come from the unconscious mind. In short, if the
Muse exists, she does not whisper to the untalented.
So although Steve and I may differ on the cause, we agree on
the effect: When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to
truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The
War of Art, she had her hands all over him.
I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush
my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I’ve got
my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up
the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back
to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded
sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got
from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight
bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came
from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my
lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from
Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire
inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation
of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E.
Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul
Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links
that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the
battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit
down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m
getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of
diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I’ve
done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of
my truck in case there’s a fire and I have to run for it. I power
down. It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many
pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I
don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my
time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this
day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers
don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s
hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived
life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust
in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation
practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a
spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling,
commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever
wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and
helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for
world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night
have you experienced a vision of the person you might
become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being
you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a
painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a
venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
One night I was layin' down,
I heard Papa talkin' to Mama.
I heard Papa say, to let that boy boogie-woogie.
‘Cause it's in him and it's got to come out.
—John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen”
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root
of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile
dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It
stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.
If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance
evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended
when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.
Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner
spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us
to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints
with hers; everyone who creates operates from this
sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds
our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance.
As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are
the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster
than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive,
harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve
been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and
women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest
bitch: We don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age
twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East
Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even
knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed
to see it right in front of my face.
Have you heard this story: Woman learns she has cancer, six
months to live. Within days she quits her job, resumes the
dream of writing Tex-Mex songs she gave up to raise a family
(or starts studying classical Greek, or moves to the inner city
and devotes herself to tending babies with AIDS). Woman’s
friends think she’s crazy; she herself has never been happier.
There’s a postscript. Woman’s cancer goes into remission.
Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to
make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance
have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to
its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug
addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to
painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply
because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner
genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow
morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted
soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward
pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory
would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The
alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the
junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not
to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the
medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would
become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine
headaches, road rage, and dandruff.
Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still,
small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand
times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You
know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re
no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or
will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance
will bury you.
You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took
his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna
to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and
later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his
paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it
overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to
start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square
of canvas.
Defining the Enemy
The enemy is a very good teacher.
—the Dalai Lama
The following is a list, in no particular order, of those
activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:
1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting,
music, film, dance, or any creative art, however
marginal or unconventional.
2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or
enterprise, for profit or otherwise.
3) Any diet or health regimen.
4) Any program of spiritual advancement.
5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.
6) Any course or program designed to overcome an
unwholesome habit or addiction.
7) Education of every kind.
8) Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage,
including the decision to change for the better
some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in
9) The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor
whose aim is to help others.
10) Any act that entails commitment of the heart. The
decision to get married, to have a child, to weather
a rocky patch in a relationship.
11) The taking of any principled stand in the face of
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in
favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed
another way, any act that derives from our higher nature
instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.
Now: what are the characteristics of Resistance?
Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it
can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from
a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim
is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our
Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it
in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. “Peripheral opponents,” as Pat
Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers.
Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises
from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated.
Resistance is the enemy within.
Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your
work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole.
Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it
takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or
jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man.
Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a
deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If
you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you
get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
Resistance is like the Alien or the Terminator or the shark in
Jaws. It cannot be reasoned with. It understands nothing but
power. It is an engine of destruction, programmed from the
factory with one object only: to prevent us from doing our
work. Resistance is implacable, intractable, indefatigable.
Reduce it to a single cell and that cell will continue to attack.
This is Resistance’s nature. It’s all it knows.
Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn’t know
who you are and doesn’t care. Resistance is a force of nature.
It acts objectively.
Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with
the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same
laws as the stars. When we marshal our forces to combat
Resistance, we must remember this.
Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil,
Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that
calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing.
We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate
by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that
we must follow before all others.
Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our
soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward
pursuing it.
We’re wrong if we think we’re the only ones struggling with
Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.
Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage
performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words,
fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the
same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be
fought anew every day.
Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims
to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our
soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to
give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means
business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.
Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it
possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of
it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a
higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts,
launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station
morally, ethically, or spiritually.
So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa
Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career
in telemarketing. . . relax. Resistance will give you a free
Odysseus almost got home years before his actual
homecoming. Ithaca was in sight, close enough that the sailors
could see the smoke of their families’ fires on shore. Odysseus
was so certain he was safe, he actually lay down for a snooze.
It was then that his men, believing there was gold in an oxhide sack among their commander’s possessions, snatched
this prize and cut it open. The bag contained the adverse
Winds, which King Aeolus had bottled up for Odysseus when
the wanderer had touched earlier at his blessed isle. The winds
burst forth now in one mad blow, driving Odysseus’ ships
back across every league of ocean they had with such
difficulty traversed, making him endure further trials and
sufferings before, at last and alone, he reached home for good.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this
point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the
panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with
everything it’s got.
The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary
at the end. Don’t open that bag of wind.
Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel
peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others.
When a writer begins to overcome her Resistance—in other
words, when she actually starts to write—she may find that
those close to her begin acting strange. They may become
moody or sullen, they may get sick; they may accuse the
awakening writer of “changing,” of “not being the person she
was.” The closer these people are to the awakening writer, the
more bizarrely they will act and the more emotion they will
put behind their actions.
They are trying to sabotage her.
The reason is that they are struggling, consciously or
unconsciously, against their own Resistance. The awakening
writer’s success becomes a reproach to them. If she can beat
these demons, why can’t they?
Often couples or close friends, even entire families, will enter
into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges
(unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough in which
she and all her cronies have become so comfortable. The
highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the
rim of the bucket.
The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself
but with others. Once you make your break, you can’t turn
around for your buddy who catches his trouser leg on the
barbed wire. The best thing you can do for that friend (and
he’d tell you this himself, if he really is your friend) is to get
over the wall and keep motating.
The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to
serve as an example and an inspiration.
Now, let’s consider the next aspect of Resistance: symptoms.
Procrastination is the most common manifestation of
Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell
ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead
we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to
start tomorrow.”
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can
become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put
them off till our deathbed.
Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives.
There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are
without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can
turn the tables on Resistance.
This second, we can sit down and do our work.
Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive
preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides
immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps
with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved.
Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has
distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our
Of course not all sex is a manifestation of Resistance. In my
experience, you can tell by the measure of hollowness you
feel afterward. The more empty you feel, the more certain you
can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but
It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs,
shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the
consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or
We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get
attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. It’s easier to get
busted in the bedroom with the faculty chairman’s wife than it
is to finish that dissertation on the metaphysics of motley in
the novellas of Joseph Conrad.
Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug
addiction, proneness to accidents, all neurosis including
compulsive screwing-up, and such seemingly benign foibles
as jealousy, chronic lateness, and the blasting of rap music at
110 dB from your smoked-glass ’95 Supra. Anything that
draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial
means is a manifestation of Resistance.
Cruelty to others is a form of Resistance, as is the willing
endurance of cruelty from others.
The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because
she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The
working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble.
She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her
Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance.
Why put in years of work designing a new software interface
when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a
boyfriend with a prison record?
Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a
culture of self-dramatization. The kids fuel the tanks, the
grown-ups arm the phasers, the whole starship lurches from
one spine-tingling episode to another. And the crew knows
how to keep it going. If the level of drama drops below a
certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets
drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an
Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it
works: Nobody gets a damn thing done.
Sometimes I think of Resistance as a sort of evil twin to Santa
Claus, who makes his rounds house-to-house, making sure
that everything’s taken care of. When he comes to a house
that’s hooked on self-dramatization, his ruddy cheeks glow
and he giddy-ups away behind his eight tiny reindeer. He
knows there’ll be no work done in that house.
Do you regularly ingest any substance, controlled or
otherwise, whose aim is the alleviation of depression, anxiety,
etc.? I offer the following experience:
I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our
boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the
disease, he said, and we can sell the cure.
Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social
Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing
ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did.
Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.
Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be
When we drug ourselves to blot out our soul’s call, we are
being good Americans and exemplary consumers. We’re
doing exactly what TV commercials and pop materialist
culture have been brainwashing us to do from birth. Instead of
applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification
and hard work, we simply consume a product.
Many pedestrians have been maimed or killed at the
intersection of Resistance and Commerce.
Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their
business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re selfdramatizing. Sometimes the hardest part of a medical job is
keeping a straight face. As Jerry Seinfeld observed of his
twenty years of dating: “That’s a lot of acting fascinated.”
The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s
existence. An illness, a cross to bear. Some people go from
condition to condition; they cure one, and another pops up to
take its place. The condition becomes a work of art in itself, a
shadow version of the real creative act the victim is avoiding
by expending so much care cultivating his condition.
A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to
achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution
made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the
manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent)
threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to
behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect
of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or
simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that
they do what he wants.
Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your
work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.
Sometimes, if we’re not conscious of our own Resistance,
we’ll pick as a mate someone who has or is successfully
overcoming Resistance. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s easier to
endow our partner with the power that we in fact possess but
are afraid to act upon. Maybe it’s less threatening to believe
that our beloved spouse is worthy to live out his or her
unlived life, while we are not. Or maybe we’re hoping to use
our mate as a model. Maybe we believe (or wish we could)
that some of our spouse’s power will rub off on us, if we just
hang around it long enough.
This is how Resistance disfigures love. The stew it creates is
rich, it’s colorful; Tennessee Williams could work it up into a
trilogy. But is it love? If we’re the supporting partner,
shouldn’t we face our own failure to pursue our unlived life,
rather than hitchhike on our spouse’s coattails? And if we’re
the supported partner, shouldn’t we step out from the glow of
our loved one’s adoration and instead encourage him to let his
own light shine?
When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is
the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a
writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be
exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly;
rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel.
That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument. The
rationalization Resistance presented me with was that I should
write, say, a war piece in which the principles of Resistance
were expressed as the fear a warrior feels.
Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put
myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain,
egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work
harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.
What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was
so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As
soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.
What does Resistance feel like?
First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery
pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get
no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the
source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and
party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We
hate our lives. We hate ourselves.
Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes
unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web
Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression,
aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical selfdestruction.
Sounds like life, I know. It isn’t. It’s Resistance.
What makes it tricky is that we live in a consumer culture
that’s acutely aware of this unhappiness and has massed all its
profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a
drug, a distraction. John Lennon once wrote:
Well, you think you’re so clever
and classless and free
But you’re all fucking peasants
As far as I can see
As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our
own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own
skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of
consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of
advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV
by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We
unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will
never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable
income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing
our work.
The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same
issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals. Each asks
the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the
meaning of my life?
At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have
to deal with such questions. In the states of savagery, of
barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe
and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments
of the community. It was only with the advent of modernity
(starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom
and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore.
These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here?
They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to
function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part
of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years
of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we
know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t
know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free
The artist and the fundamentalist arise from societies at
differing stages of development. The artist is the advanced
model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough
excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination.
The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is
lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of selfconfidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and
evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however
haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.
The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. In his view,
humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out
there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The
word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be
he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.
Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the
conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning
ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as
Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian
captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the
American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the
Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In
such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish
without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic
fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair
and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.
What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The
dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual
cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the
tribe and the clan, the village and the family.
It is the state of modern life.
The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered
individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot
stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he
retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days
of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in
their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To
Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no
such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the
fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is
inverted. He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds,
his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to
annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.
But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the
fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to
which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the
artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He
experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the
fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce
him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with
Satan, whom he loves as he loves death. Is it coincidence that
the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented
strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their
reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish
them in the fleshpots of heaven? The fundamentalist hates and
fears women because he sees them as vessels of Satan,
temptresses like Delilah who seduced Samson from his power.
To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, the fundamentalist
plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He
loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of
creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward,
hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward,
seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have
The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is
called upon to co-create the world with God. This is why he
values human life so highly. In his view, things do progress,
life does evolve; each individual has value, at least potentially,
in advancing this cause. The fundamentalist cannot conceive
of this. In his society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it
is heresy, transgression against God Himself.
When fundamentalism wins, the world enters a dark age. Yet
still I can’t condemn one who is drawn to this philosophy. I
consider my own inner journey, the advantages I’ve had of
education, affluence, family support, health, and the blind
good luck to be born American, and still I have learned to
exist as an autonomous individual, if indeed I have, only by a
whisker, and at a cost I would hate to have to reckon up.
It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The
air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe. Certainly I
wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with
freedom were easy. The paradox seems to be, as Socrates
demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free
only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who
will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to
govern over them.
If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably
doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to
live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not
lived out our own.
Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never
criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer
encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of
Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty
harm others as well.
Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an
indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we
dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself
asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am
I really an artist?” chances are you are.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real
one is scared to death.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us
what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a
work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to
the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel
about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that
that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.
That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to
us, there’d be no Resistance.
Have you ever watched Inside the Actors Studio? The host,
James Lipton, invariably asks his guests, “What factors make
you decide to take a particular role?” The actor always
answers: “Because I’m afraid of it.”
The professional tackles the project that will make him
stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into
uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of
Is he scared? Hell, yes. He’s petrified.
(Conversely, the professional turns down roles that he’s done
before. He’s not afraid of them anymore. Why waste his
So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you
what you have to do.
Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling
massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s
tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that
is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of
love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
The more Resistance you experience, the more important your
unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you—and the more
gratification you will feel when you finally do it.
Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the
sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success,
like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.
The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards
to come or not come, whatever they like.
Sometimes we balk at embarking on an enterprise because
we’re afraid of being alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe
around us; it makes us nervous going off into the woods on
our own.
Here’s the trick: We’re never alone. As soon as we step
outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder
like a butterfly. The act of courage calls forth infallibly that
deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.
Have you seen interviews with the young John Lennon or Bob
Dylan, when the reporter tries to ask about their personal
selves? The boys deflect these queries with withering sarcasm.
Why? Because Lennon and Dylan know that the part of them
that writes the songs is not “them,” not the personal self that is
of such surpassing fascination to their boneheaded
interrogators. Lennon and Dylan also know that the part of
themselves that does the writing is too sacred, too precious,
too fragile to be redacted into sound bites for the titillation of
would-be idolators (who are themselves caught up in their
own Resistance). So they put them on and blow them off.
It is a commonplace among artists and children at play that
they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing
their vision. The hours fly. The sculptress and the treeclimbing tyke both look up blinking when Mom calls,
Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by
yourself all day?” At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer
No. Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I
was with the characters. I was with my Self.
Not only do I not feel alone with my characters; they are more
vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life. If
you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise. In order for a
book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the
length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some
internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance
to us. That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if
we can’t at the start understand or articulate it. As the
characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that
dilemma, that perplexity. These characters might not be
interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to
us. They are us. Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves.
It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the
same issue that has its hooks into us. They’re our soul mates,
our lovers, our best friends. Even the villains. Especially the
Even in a book like this, which has no characters, I don’t feel
alone because I’m imagining the reader, whom I conjure as an
aspiring artist much like my own younger, less grizzled self,
to whom I hope to impart a little starch and inspiration and
prime, a little, with some hard-knocks wisdom and a few
tricks of the trade.
Have you ever spent time in Santa Fe? There’s a subculture of
“healing” there. The idea is that there’s something therapeutic
in the atmosphere. A safe place to go and get yourself
together. There are other places (Santa Barbara and Ojai,
California, come to mind), usually populated by uppermiddle-class people with more time and money than they
know what to do with, in which a culture of healing also
obtains. The concept in all these environments seems to be
that one needs to complete his healing before he is ready to do
his work.
This way of thinking (are you ahead of me?) is a form of
What are we trying to heal, anyway? The athlete knows the
day will never come when he wakes up pain-free. He has to
play hurt.
Remember, the part of us that we imagine needs healing is not
the part we create from; that part is far deeper and stronger.
The part we create from can’t be touched by anything our
parents did, or society did. That part is unsullied, uncorrupted;
soundproof, waterproof, and bulletproof. In fact, the more
troubles we’ve got, the better and richer that part becomes.
The part that needs healing is our personal life. Personal life
has nothing to do with work. Besides, what better way of
healing than to find our center of self-sovereignty? Isn’t that
the whole point of healing?
I washed up in New York a couple of decades ago, making
twenty bucks a night driving a cab and running away fulltime from doing my work. One night, alone in my $110-amonth sublet, I hit bottom in terms of having diverted myself
into so many phony channels so many times that I couldn’t
rationalize it for one more evening. I dragged out my ancient
Smith-Corona, dreading the experience as pointless, fruitless,
meaningless, not to say the most painful exercise I could think
of. For two hours I made myself sit there, torturing out some
trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan. That was
enough. I put the machine away. I went back to the kitchen. In
the sink sat ten days of dishes. For some reason I had enough
excess energy that I decided to wash them. The warm water
felt pretty good. The soap and sponge were doing their thing.
A pile of clean plates began rising in the drying rack. To my
amazement I realized I was whistling.
It hit me that I had turned a corner.
I was okay.
I would be okay from here on.
Do you understand? I hadn’t written anything good. It might
be years before I would, if I ever did at all. That didn’t matter.
What counted was that I had, after years of running from it,
actually sat down and done my work.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against true healing. We
all need it. But it has nothing to do with doing our work and it
can be a colossal exercise in Resistance. Resistance loves
“healing.” Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we
expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices
of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.
Have you ever been to a workshop? These boondoggles are
colleges of Resistance. They ought to give out Ph.D.’s in
Resistance. What better way of avoiding work than going to a
workshop? But what I hate even worse is the word support.
Seeking support from friends and family is like having your
people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when
the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving
Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like
Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where
we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend
stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the
weaker we become and the less capable of handling our
My friend Carol had the following dream, at a time when her
life felt like it was careening out of control:
She was a passenger on a bus. Bruce Springsteen was driving.
Suddenly Springsteen pulled over, handed Carol the keys, and
bolted. In the dream Carol was panicking. How could she
drive this huge rolling Greyhound? By now all the passengers
were staring. Clearly no one else was gonna step forward and
take charge. Carol took the wheel. To her amazement, she
found she could handle it.
Later, analyzing the dream, she figured Bruce Springsteen was
“The Boss.” The boss of her psyche. The bus was the vehicle
of her life. The Boss was telling Carol it was time to take the
wheel. More than that, the dream, by actually setting her
down in the driver’s seat and letting her feel that she could
control the vehicle on the road, was providing her with a
simulator run, to prime her with the confidence that she could
actually take command in her life.
A dream like that is real support. It’s a check you can cash
when you sit down, alone, to do your work.
P.S. When your deeper Self delivers a dream like that, don’t
talk about it. Don’t dilute its power. The dream is for you. It’s
between you and your Muse. Shut up and use it.
The only exception is, you may share it with another
comrade-in-arms, if sharing it will help or encourage that
comrade in his or her own endeavors.
Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to
keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly
faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.
Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be
without it? I don’t know anyone who can get
through the day without two or three juicy
rationalizations. They’re more important than
Aw, come on! Nothing’s more important than sex.
Oh yeah? Have you ever gone a week without a
—Jeff Goldblum and Tom Berenger,
in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill
But rationalization has its own sidekick. It’s that part of our
psyche that actually believes what rationalization tells us.
It’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe
Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself
naked in this form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see
clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our
work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to
act in the face of fear.
Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in
Rationalization. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor.
It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back.
Instead of showing us our fear (which might shame us and
impel us to do our work), Resistance presents us with a series
of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do
our work.
What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that
Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. They’re
legitimate. Our wife may really be in her eighth month of
pregnancy; she may in truth need us at home. Our department
may really be instituting a changeover that will eat up hours
of our time. Indeed it may make sense to put off finishing our
dissertation, at least till after the baby’s born.
What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means
diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace.
Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France
three years and counting.
If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth
Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge.
Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely
impossible until you remember that women have been pulling
it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million
Turning Pro
It is one thing to study war
and another to live the warrior’s life.
—Telamon of Arcadia,
mercenary of the fifth century B.C.
Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They
all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro.
The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his
first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state
absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two
parts: before turning pro, and after.
To be clear: When I say professional, I don’t mean doctors
and lawyers, those of “the professions.” I mean the
Professional as an ideal. The professional in contrast to the
amateur. Consider the differences.
The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.
To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his
The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.
The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there
seven days a week.
The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to
love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur
pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for
money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not
love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a
sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation.
The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it.
He commits full-time.
That’s what I mean when I say turning pro.
Resistance hates it when we turn pro.
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a
schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only
when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes
every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
That’s a pro.
In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise
Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my
Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing
the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work,
he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events
that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had
synchronized her watch with his.
He knew if he built it, she would come.
I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.
Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are
starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not.
I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that
to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my
guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can
defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink
can overcome an alcoholic
I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of
daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running
in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little
while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings.
I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a)
you must know the difference between what is urgent and
what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.
What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit
up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything
I’ve got.
Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s
survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as
catching that mouse is to the hawk circling outside my
window. He’s hungry. He needs a kill. So do I.
I’m done with my chores now. It’s time. I say my prayer and
head out on the hunt.
The sun isn’t up yet; it’s cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles
scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is
a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of
another and keep climbing.
An hour passes. I’m warmer now, the pace has got my blood
going. The years have taught me one skill: how to be
miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping. This is a
great asset because it’s human, the proper role for a mortal. It
does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. My
bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over.
Another hour passes. I turn the corner of a thicket and there he
is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept
Home from the hill, I thank the immortals and offer up their
portion of the kill. They brought it to me; they deserve their
share. I am grateful.
I joke with my kids beside the fire. They’re happy; the old
man has brought home the bacon. The old lady’s happy; she’s
cooking it up. I’m happy; I’ve earned my keep on the planet,
at least for this day.
Resistance is not a factor now. I don’t think of the hunt and I
don’t think of the office. The tension drains from my neck and
back. What I feel and say and do this night will not be coming
from any disowned or unresolved part of me, any part
corrupted by Resistance.
I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I
will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.
In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up
in the Marine Corps. There’s a myth that Marine training turns
baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the
Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach,
however, is a lot more useful.
The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.
This is invaluable for an artist.
Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse
satisfaction from having colder chow, crappier equipment, and
higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys
or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these
candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered
for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the
duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair,
ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be
miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take
pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or
jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
All of us are pros in one area: our jobs.
We get a paycheck. We work for money. We are professionals.
Now: Are there principles we can take from what we’re
already successfully doing in our workaday lives and apply to
our artistic aspirations? What exactly are the qualities that
define us as professionals?
1) We show up every day. We might do it only because
we have to, to keep from getting fired. But we do it.
We show up every day.
2) We show up no matter what. In sickness and in
health, come hell or high water, we stagger in to the
factory. We might do it only so as not to let down our
co-workers, or for other, less noble reasons. But we do
it. We show up no matter what.
3) We stay on the job all day. Our minds may wander,
but our bodies remain at the wheel. We pick up the
phone when it rings, we assist the customer when he
seeks our help. We don’t go home till the whistle
4) We are committed over the long haul. Next year we
may go to another job, another company, another
country. But we’ll still be working. Until we hit the
lottery, we are part of the labor force.
5) The stakes for us are high and real. This is about
survival, feeding our families, educating our children.
It’s about eating.
6) We accept remuneration for our labor. We’re not here
for fun. We work for money.
7) We do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take
pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on
weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job
descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand,
overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic
aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician,
a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this.
Resistance knows that the amateur composer will
never write his symphony because he is overly
invested in its success and overterrified of its failure.
The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.
8) We master the technique of our jobs.
9) We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
10) We receive praise or blame in the real world.
Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe
playwright. How does he pursue his calling?
One, he doesn’t show up every day. Two, he doesn’t show up
no matter what. Three, he doesn’t stay on the job all day. He is
not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are
illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he
overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor
about failure. You don’t hear him bitching, “This fucking
trilogy is killing me!” Instead, he doesn’t write his trilogy at
The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor
does he expose himself to judgment in the real world. If we
show our poem to our friend and our friend says, “It’s
wonderful, I love it,” that’s not real-world feedback, that’s our
friend being nice to us. Nothing is as empowering as realworld validation, even if it’s for failure.
The first professional writing job I ever had, after seventeen
years of trying, was on a movie called King Kong Lives. I and
my partner-at-the-time, Ron Shusett (a brilliant writer and
producer who also did Alien and Total Recall) hammered out
the screenplay for Dino DeLaurentiis. We loved it; we were
sure we had a hit. Even after we’d seen the finished film, we
were certain it was a blockbuster. We invited everyone we
knew to the premiere, even rented out the joint next door for a
post-triumph blowout. Get there early, we warned our friends,
the place’ll be mobbed.
Nobody showed. There was only one guy in line beside our
guests and he was muttering something about spare change. In
the theater, our friends endured the movie in mute
stupefaction. When the lights came up, they fled like
cockroaches into the night.
Next day came the review in Variety: “. . . Ronald Shusett and
Steven Pressfield; we hope these are not their real names, for
their parents’ sake.” When the first week’s grosses came in,
the flick barely registered. Still I clung to hope. Maybe it’s
only tanking in urban areas, maybe it’s playing better in the
burbs. I motored to an Edge City multiplex. A youth manned
the popcorn booth. “How’s King Kong Lives?” I asked. He
flashed thumbs-down. “Miss it, man. It sucks.”
I was crushed. Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced,
childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase
the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on
a big-time Hollywood production starring Linda Hamilton,
and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless,
and so am I.
My friend Tony Keppelman snapped me out of it by asking if
I was gonna quit. Hell, no! “Then be happy. You’re where you
wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows.
That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.
Stop complaining and be grateful.”
That was when I realized I had become a pro. I had not yet
had a success. But I had had a real failure.
To clarify a point about professionalism: The professional,
though he accepts money, does his work out of love. He has to
love it. Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own
free will.
The professional has learned, however, that too much love can
be a bad thing. Too much love can make him choke. The
seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded
character to his demeanor, is a compensating device to keep
him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action.
Playing for money, or adopting the attitude of one who plays
for money, lowers the fever.
Remember what we said about fear, love, and Resistance. The
more you love your art/calling/enterprise, the more important
its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul, the more
you will fear it and the more Resistance you will experience
facing it. The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the
money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn
pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces
the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail
mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind
that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night
and slugs it out day after day.
The writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is
measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day,
one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood. The
artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees GI
Joe. Remember, the Muse favors working stiffs. She hates
prima donnas. To the gods the supreme sin is not rape or
murder, but pride. To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun
for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and
Resistance loves pride and preciousness. Resistance says,
“Show me a writer who’s too good to take Job X or
Assignment Y and I’ll show you a guy I can crack like a
Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro
plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.
Now let’s consider: What are the aspects of the Professional?
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the
book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets
us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and
unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t
sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will
The professional, on the other hand, understands delayed
gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise,
not the hare. Have you heard the legend of Sylvester Stallone
staying up three nights straight to churn out the screenplay for
Rocky? I don’t know, it may even be true. But it’s the most
pernicious species of myth to set before the awakening writer,
because it seduces him into believing he can pull off the big
score without pain and without persistence.
The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give
the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from
flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job,
whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long
as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He
recognizes it as reality.
The professional steels himself at the start of a project,
reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash.
He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long
haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can
just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will
pull in to Nome.
When I lived in the back of my Chevy van, I had to dig my
typewriter out from beneath layers of tire tools, dirty laundry,
and moldering paperbacks. My truck was a nest, a hive, a
hellhole on wheels whose sleeping surface I had to clear each
night just to carve out a foxhole to snooze in.
The professional cannot live like that. He is on a mission. He
will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world
in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet
vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter
and not soil her gown.
A pro views her work as craft, not art. Not because she
believes art is devoid of a mystical dimension. On the
contrary. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy,
but she doesn’t dwell on it. She knows if she thinks about that
too much, it will paralyze her. So she concentrates on
technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and
why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait
for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition.
The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go
into inspiration. Out of respect for them, she lets them work.
She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.
The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and
preoccupation with the mystery.
The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does
her work.
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he
can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never
be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless
warrior or a dread-free artist.
What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his
dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still
terrified but he forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He
knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will
recede and he’ll be okay.
The amateur, underestimating Resistance’s cunning, permits
the flu to keep him from his chapters; he believes the serpent’s
voice in his head that says mailing off that manuscript is more
important than doing the day’s work.
The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance.
He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the
pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.
The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer;
if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t
even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
My friend the Hawk and I were playing the first hole at
Prestwick in Scotland; the wind was howling out of the left. I
started an eight-iron thirty yards to windward, but the gale
caught it; I watched in dismay as the ball sailed hard right, hit
the green going sideways, and bounded off into the cabbage.
“Sonofabitch!” I turned to our caddie. “Did you see the wind
take that shot!?”
He gave that look that only Scottish caddies can give. “Well,
ye’ve got t’ play th’ wind now, don’t ye?”
The professional conducts his business in the real world.
Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good
breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which
the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the
professional understands, only in heaven.
I’m not talking about craft; that goes without saying. The
professional is prepared at a deeper level. He is prepared, each
day, to confront his own self-sabotage.
The professional understands that Resistance is fertile and
ingenious. It will throw stuff at him that he’s never seen
The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to
deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him. He is
prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a
beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can.
He understands that the field alters every day. His goal is not
victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to
handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.
A professional’s work has style; it is distinctively his own. But
he doesn’t let his signature grandstand for him. His style
serves the material. He does not impose it as a means of
drawing attention to himself.
This doesn’t mean that the professional doesn’t throw down a
360 tomahawk jam from time to time, just to let the boys
know he’s still in business.
The professional respects his craft. He does not consider
himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those
who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not
because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration
but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of
skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He
knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he
leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in the world. Yet he has a
teacher; he works with Butch Harmon. And Tiger doesn’t
endure this instruction or suffer through it—he revels in it. It’s
his keenest professional joy to get out there on the practice tee
with Butch, to learn more about the game he loves.
Tiger Woods is the consummate professional. It would never
occur to him, as it would to an amateur, that he knows
everything, or can figure everything out on his own. On the
contrary, he seeks out the most knowledgeable teacher and
listens with both ears. The student of the game knows that the
levels of revelation that can unfold in golf, as in any art, are
The pro stands at one remove from her instrument— meaning
her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical,
mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her
work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply
what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it
coolly, impersonally, objectively.
The professional identifies with her consciousness and her
will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will
manipulate to serve her art. Does Madonna walk around the
house in cone bras and come-fuck-me bustiers? She’s too
busy planning D-Day. Madonna does not identify with
“Madonna.” Madonna employs “Madonna.”
When people say an artist has a thick skin, what they mean is
not that the person is dense or numb, but that he has seated his
professional consciousness in a place other than his personal
ego. It takes tremendous strength of character to do this,
because our deepest instincts run counter to it. Evolution has
programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. This is how the
tribe enforced obedience, by wielding the threat of expulsion.
Fear of rejection isn’t just psychological; it’s biological. It’s in
our cells.
Resistance knows this and uses it against us. It uses fear of
rejection to paralyze us and prevent us, if not from doing our
work, then from exposing it to public evaluation. I had a dear
friend who had labored for years on an excellent and deeply
personal novel. It was done. He had it in its mailing box. But
he couldn’t make himself send it off. Fear of rejection
unmanned him.
The professional cannot take rejection personally because to
do so reinforces Resistance. Editors are not the enemy; critics
are not the enemy. Resistance is the enemy. The battle is
inside our own heads. We cannot let external criticism, even if
it’s true, fortify our internal foe. That foe is strong enough
A professional schools herself to stand apart from her
performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul.
The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor,
not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his
life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.
The professional loves her work. She is invested in it
wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not
her. Her artistic self contains many works and many
performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The
next will be better, and the one after that better still.
The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded. In the
face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly
and objectively. Where it fell short, she’ll improve it. Where it
triumphed, she’ll make it better still. She’ll work harder.
She’ll be back tomorrow.
The professional gives an ear to criticism, seeking to learn and
grow. But she never forgets that Resistance is using criticism
against her on a far more diabolical level. Resistance enlists
criticism to reinforce the fifth column of fear already at work
inside the artist’s head, seeking to break her will and crack her
dedication. The professional does not fall for this. Her
resolution, before all others, remains: No matter what, I will
never let Resistance beat me.
I had been in Tinseltown five years, had finished nine
screenplays on spec, none of which had sold. Finally I got a
meeting with a big producer. He kept taking phone calls, even
as I pitched my stuff. He had one of those headset things, so
he didn’t even have to pick up a receiver; the calls came in
and he took them. Finally one came that was personal.
“Would you mind?” he asked, indicating the door. “I need
some privacy on this one.” I exited. The door closed behind
me. Ten minutes passed. I was standing out by the secretaries.
Twenty more minutes passed. Finally the producer’s door
opened; he came out pulling on his jacket. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
He had forgotten all about me.
I’m human. This hurt. I wasn’t a kid either; I was in my
forties, with a rap sheet of failure as long as your arm.
The professional cannot let himself take humiliation
personally. Humiliation, like rejection and criticism, is the
external reflection of internal Resistance.
The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash
down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a
heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot be
buried, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is
bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.
I saw a fat happy old guy once in his Cadillac on the freeway.
He had the A/C going, Pointer Sisters on the CD, puffing on a
stogie. His license plate:
The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the
hole. He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting
stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the
parking lot.
An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He
takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own
belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this.
Can you stand another Tiger Woods story? With four holes to
go on the final day of the 2001 Masters (which Tiger went on
to win, completing the all-four-majors-at-one-time Slam),
some chucklehead in the gallery snapped a camera shutter at
the top of Tiger’s backswing. Incredibly, Tiger was able to
pull up in mid-swing and back off the shot. But that wasn’t
the amazing part. After looking daggers at the malefactor,
Tiger recomposed himself, stepped back to the ball, and
striped it 310 down the middle.
That’s a professional. It is tough-mindedness at a level most
of us can’t comprehend, let alone emulate. But let’s look more
closely at what Tiger did, or rather what he didn’t do.
First, he didn’t react reflexively. He didn’t allow an act that by
all rights should have provoked an automatic response of rage
to actually produce that rage. He controlled his reaction. He
governed his emotion.
Second, he didn’t take it personally. He could have perceived
this shutterbug’s act as a deliberate blow aimed at him
individually, with the intention of throwing him off his shot.
He could have reacted with outrage or indignation or cast
himself as a victim. He didn’t.
Third, he didn’t take it as a sign of heaven’s malevolence. He
could have experienced this bolt as the malice of the golfing
gods, like a bad hop in baseball or a linesman’s miscall in
tennis. He could have groaned or sulked or surrendered
mentally to this injustice, this interference, and used it as an
excuse to fail. He didn’t.
What he did do was maintain his sovereignty over the
moment. He understood that, no matter what blow had
befallen him from an outside agency, he himself still had his
job to do, the shot he needed to hit right here, right now. And
he knew that it remained within his power to produce that
shot. Nothing stood in his way except whatever emotional
upset he himself chose to hold on to. Tiger’s mother, Kultida,
is a Buddhist. Perhaps from her he had learned compassion, to
let go of fury at the heedlessness of an overzealous shutterclicker. In any event Tiger Woods, the ultimate professional,
vented his anger quickly with a look, then recomposed
himself and returned to the task at hand.
The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define
his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the
writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing
matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or
the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up,
ready to serve the gods.
Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others.
It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reasonfor-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance
knows we can’t take this. No one can.
The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them.
Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of
Resistance and as such can be truly cunning and pernicious.
They can articulate in their reviews the same toxic venom that
Resistance itself concocts inside our heads. That is their real
evil. Not that we believe them, but that we believe the
Resistance in our own minds, for which critics serve as
unconscious spokespersons.
The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and
to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic
hates most that which he would have done himself if he had
had the guts.
She gets an agent, she gets a lawyer, she gets an accountant.
She knows she can only be a professional at one thing. She
brings in other pros and treats them with respect.
Goldie Hawn once observed that there are only three ages for
an actress in Hollywood: “Babe, D.A., and Driving Miss
Daisy.” She was making a different point, but the truth
remains: As artists we serve the Muse, and the Muse may
have more than one job for us over our lifetime.
The professional does not permit himself to become
hidebound within one incarnation, however comfortable or
successful. Like a transmigrating soul, he shucks his outworn
body and dons a new one. He continues his journey.
The professional senses who has served his time and who
hasn’t. Like Alan Ladd and Jack Palance circling each other in
Shane, a gun recognizes another gun.
When I first moved to Los Angeles and made the
acquaintance of working screenwriters, I learned that many
had their own corporations. They provided their writing
services not as themselves but as “loan-outs” from their oneman businesses. Their writing contracts were f/s/o —“for
services of ”— themselves. I had never seen this before. I
thought it was pretty cool.
For a writer to incorporate himself has certain tax and
financial advantages. But what I love about it is the metaphor.
I like the idea of being Myself, Inc. That way I can wear two
hats. I can hire myself and fire myself. I can even, as Robin
Williams once remarked of writer-producers, blow smoke up
my own ass.
Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in
that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it
separates the artist-doing-the-work from the will-andconsciousness-running-the-show. No matter how much abuse
is heaped on the head of the former, the latter takes it in stride
and keeps on trucking. Conversely with success: You-thewriter may get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember
how to take yourself down a peg.
Have you ever worked in an office? Then you know about
Monday morning status meetings. The group assembles in the
conference room and the boss goes over what assignments
each team member is responsible for in the coming week.
When the meeting breaks up, an assistant prepares a work
sheet and distributes it. When this hits your desk an hour later,
you know exactly what you have to do that week.
I have one of those meetings with myself every Monday. I sit
down and go over my assignments. Then I type it up and
distribute it to myself.
I have corporate stationery and corporate business cards and a
corporate checkbook. I write off corporate expenses and pay
corporate taxes. I have different credit cards for myself and
my corporation.
If we think of ourselves as a corporation, it gives us a healthy
distance on ourselves. We’re less subjective. We don’t take
blows as personally. We’re more cold-blooded; we can price
our wares more realistically. Sometimes, as Joe Blow himself,
I’m too mild-mannered to go out and sell. But as Joe Blow,
Inc., I can pimp the hell out of myself. I’m not me anymore.
I’m Me, Inc.
I’m a pro.
Why does Resistance yield to our turning pro? Because
Resistance is a bully. Resistance has no strength of its own; its
power derives entirely from our fear of it. A bully will back
down before the runtiest twerp who stands his ground.
The essence of professionalism is the focus upon the work
and its demands, while we are doing it, to the exclusion of all
else. The ancient Spartans schooled themselves to regard the
enemy, any enemy, as nameless and faceless. In other words,
they believed that if they did their work, no force on earth
could stand against them. In The Searchers, John Wayne and
Jeffrey Hunter pursue the war chief, Scar, who has kidnapped
their young kinswoman, played by Natalie Wood. Winter
stops them, but Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, does not
slacken his resolve. He’ll return to the trail in spring, he
declares, and, sooner or later, the fugitive’s vigilance will
Seems he never learns there’s such a thing
as a critter that might just keep comin’
on. So we’ll find ‘em in the end, I promise
you that. Just as sure as the turning of
the earth.
The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own
game by being even more resolute and even more implacable
than it is.
There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought
about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view
ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
The Higher Realm
The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to
grant you the thoughts, words, and deeds likely to render
your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring
yourself, your friends, and your city the fullest measure of
affection and glory and advantage.
The Cavalry Commander
The next few chapters are going to be about those invisible
psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey
toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels.
Does that make you uncomfortable?
If it does, you have my permission to think of angels in the
abstract. Consider these forces as being impersonal as gravity.
Maybe they are. It’s not hard to believe, is it, that a force
exists in every grain and seed to make it grow? Or that in
every kitten or colt is an instinct that impels it to run and play
and learn.
Just as Resistance can be thought of as personal (I’ve said
Resistance “loves” such-and-such or “hates” such-and-such),
it can also be viewed as a force of nature as impersonal as
entropy or molecular decay.
Similarly the call to growth can be conceptualized as personal
(a daimon or genius, an angel or a muse) or as impersonal,
like the tides or the transiting of Venus. Either way works, as
long as we’re comfortable with it. Or if extra-dimensionality
doesn’t sit well with you in any form, think of it as “talent,”
programmed into our genes by evolution.
The point, for the thesis I’m seeking to put forward, is that
there are forces we can call our allies.
As Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were
born to be, equal and opposite powers are counterpoised
against it. These are our allies and angels.
Why have I stressed professionalism so heavily in the
preceding chapters? Because the most important thing about
art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every
day and trying.
Why is this so important?
Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding,
something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into
motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to
our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity
reinforces our purpose.
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe
writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work,
power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our
dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight.
When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized
rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home
in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active
What I call Professionalism someone else might call the
Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way. It’s an attitude of
egolessness and service. The Knights of the Round Table were
chaste and self-effacing. Yet they dueled dragons.
We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul,
whom we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our
self-in-potential and to release the maiden who is God’s plan
and destiny for ourselves and the answer to why we were put
on this planet.
The quote from Xenophon that opens this section comes from
a pamphlet called The Cavalry Commander, in which the
celebrated warrior and historian proffers instruction to those
young gentlemen who aspired to be officers of the Athenian
equestrian corps. He declares that the commander’s first duty,
before he mucks out a stable or seeks funding from the
Defense Review Board, is to sacrifice to the gods and invoke
their aid.
I do the same thing. The last thing I do before I sit down to
work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in
absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.
In my late twenties I rented a little house in Northern
California; I had gone there to finish a novel or kill myself
trying. By that time I had blown up a marriage to a girl I loved
with all my heart, screwed up two careers, blah blah, etc., all
because (though I had no understanding of this at the time) I
could not handle Resistance. I had one novel nine-tenths of
the way through and another at ninety-nine hundredths before
I threw them in the trash. I couldn’t finish ’em. I didn’t have
the guts. In yielding thusly to Resistance, I fell prey to every
vice, evil, distraction, you-name-it mentioned heretofore, all
leading nowhere, and finally washed up in this sleepy
California town, with my Chevy van, my cat Mo, and my
antique Smith-Corona.
A guy named Paul Rink lived down the street. Look him up,
he’s in Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of
Hieronymus Bosch. Paul was a writer. He lived in his camper,
“Moby Dick.” I started each day over coffee with Paul. He
turned me on to all kinds of authors I had never heard of,
lectured me on self-discipline, dedication, the evils of the
marketplace. But best of all, he shared with me his prayer, the
Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, the T. E.
Lawrence translation. Paul typed it out for me on his evenmore-ancient-than-mine manual Remington. I still have it. It’s
yellow and parched as dust; the merest puff would blow it to
In my little house I had no TV. I never read a newspaper or
went to a movie. I just worked. One afternoon I was banging
away in the little bedroom I had converted to an office, when I
heard my neighbor’s radio playing outside. Someone in a loud
voice was declaiming “. . . to preserve, protect, and defend the
Constitution of the United States.” I came out. What’s going
on? “Didn’t you hear? Nixon’s out; they got a new guy in
I had missed Watergate completely.
I was determined to keep working. I had failed so many times,
and caused myself and people I loved so much pain thereby,
that I felt if I crapped out this time I would have to hang
myself. I didn’t know what Resistance was then. No one had
schooled me in the concept. I felt it though, big-time. I
experienced it as a compulsion to self-destruct. I could not
finish what I started. The closer I got, the more different ways
I’d find to screw it up. I worked for twenty-six months
straight, taking only two out for a stint of migrant labor in
Washington State, and finally one day I got to the last page
and typed out:
I never did find a buyer for the book. Or the next one, either. It
was ten years before I got the first check for something I had
written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger
Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first
hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember
rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the
finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared.
But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life
had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last
sulfuric breath.
Rest in peace, motherfucker.
Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him I
had finished. “Good for you,” he said without looking up.
“Start the next one today.”
Before I met Paul, I had never heard of the Muses. He
enlightened me. The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of
Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” Their names
are Clio, Erato, Thalia, Terpsichore, Calliope, Polyhymnia,
Euterpe, Melpomene, and Urania. Their job is to inspire
artists. Each Muse is responsible for a different art. There’s a
neighborhood in New Orleans where the streets are named
after the Muses. I lived there once and had no idea; I thought
they were just weird names.
Here’s Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, on the “noble effect of
heaven-sent madness”:
The third type of possession and
madness is possession by the Muses.
When this seizes upon a gentle and
virgin soul it rouses it to inspired
expression in lyric and other sorts of
poetry, and glorifies countless deeds of
the heroes of old for the instruction of
posterity. But if a man comes to the door
of poetry untouched by the madness of
the Muses, believing that technique
alone will make him a good poet, he and
his sane compositions never reach
perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by
the performances of the inspired
The Greek way of apprehending the mystery was to personify
it. The ancients sensed powerful primordial forces in the
world. To make them approachable, they gave them human
faces. They called them Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite. American
Indians felt the same mystery but rendered it in animistic
forms–Bear Teacher, Hawk Messenger, Coyote Trickster.
Our ancestors were keenly cognizant of forces and energies
whose seat was not in this material sphere but in a loftier,
more mysterious one. What did they believe about this higher
First, they believed that death did not exist there. The gods are
The gods, though not unlike humans, are infinitely more
powerful. To defy their will is futile. To act toward heaven
with pride is to call down calamity.
Time and space display an altered existence in this higher
dimension. The gods travel “swift as thought.” They can tell
the future, some of them, and though the playwright Agathon
tells us,
This alone is denied to God:
the power to undo the past
yet the immortals can play tricks with time, as we ourselves
may sometimes, in dreams or visions.
The universe, the Greeks believed, was not indifferent. The
gods take an interest in human affairs, and intercede for good
or ill in our designs.
The contemporary view is that all this is charming but
preposterous. Is it? Then answer this. Where did Hamlet come
from? Where did the Parthenon come from? Where did Nude
Descending a Staircase come from?
Eternity is in love with the creations of time.
– William Blake
The visionary poet William Blake was, so I understand, one of
those half-mad avatars who appear in flesh from time to time–
savants capable of ascending for brief periods to loftier planes
and returning to share the wonders they have seen.
Shall we try to decipher the meaning of the verse above?
What Blake means by “eternity,” I think, is the sphere higher
than this one, a plane of reality superior to the material
dimension in which we dwell. In “eternity,” there is no such
thing as time (or Blake’s syntax wouldn’t distinguish it from
“eternity”) and probably no space either. This plane may be
inhabited by higher creatures. Or it may be pure
consciousness or spirit. But whatever it is, according to Blake,
it’s capable of being “in love.”
If beings inhabit this plane, I take Blake to mean that they are
incorporeal. They don’t have bodies. But they have a
connection to the sphere of time, the one we live in. These
gods or spirits participate in this dimension. They take an
interest in it.
“Eternity is in love with the creations of time” means, to me,
that in some way these creatures of the higher sphere (or the
sphere itself, in the abstract) take joy in what we time-bound
beings can bring forth into physical existence in our limited
material sphere.
It may be pushing the envelope, but if these beings take joy in
the “creations of time,” might they not also nudge us a little to
produce them? If that’s true, then the image of the Muse
whispering inspiration in the artist’s ear is quite apt.
The timeless communicating to the timebound.
By Blake’s model, as I understand it, it’s as though the Fifth
Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before
Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch
was this: The work existed only as potential–without a body,
so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You
couldn’t hear it.
It needed someone. It needed a corporeal being, a human, an
artist (or more precisely a genius, in the Latin sense of “soul”
or “animating spirit”) to bring it into being on this material
plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear. Maybe she
hummed a few bars into a million other ears. But no one else
heard her. Only Beethoven got it.
He brought it forth. He made the Fifth Symphony a “creation
of time,” which “eternity” could be “in love with.”
So that eternity, whether we conceive of it as God, pure
consciousness, infinite intelligence, omniscient spirit, or if we
choose to think of it as beings, gods, spirits, avatars —when
“it” or “they” hear somehow the sounds of earthly music, it
brings them joy.
In other words, Blake agrees with the Greeks. The gods do
exist. They do penetrate our earthly sphere.
Which brings us back to the Muse. The Muse, remember, is
the daughter of Zeus, Father of the Gods, and Memory,
Mnemosyne. That’s a pretty impressive pedigree. I’ll accept
those credentials.
I’ll take Xenophon at his word; before I sit down to work, I’ll
take a minute and show respect to this unseen Power who can
make or break me.
Artists have invoked the Muse since time immemorial. There
is great wisdom to this. There is magic to effacing our human
arrogance and humbly entreating help from a source we
cannot see, hear, touch, or smell. Here’s the start of Homer’s
Odyssey, the T. E. Lawrence translation:
O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of
Zeus, sustain for me this song of the
various-minded man who, after he had
plundered the innermost citadel of
hallowed Troy, was made to stray
grievously about the coasts of men, the
sport of their customs, good and bad,
while his heart, through all the seafaring, ached with an agony to redeem
himself and bring his company safe
home. Vain hope—for them. The fools!
Their own witlessness cast them aside.
To destroy for meat the oxen of the most
exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god
blotted out the day of their return. Make
this tale live for us in all its many
bearings, O Muse. . . .
This passage will reward closer study.
First, Divine Poesy. When we invoke the Muse we are calling
on a force not just from a different plane of reality, but from a
holier plane.
Goddess, daughter of Zeus. Not only are we invoking divine
intercession, but intercession on the highest level, just one
remove from the top.
Sustain for me. Homer doesn’t ask for brilliance or success.
He just wants to keep this thing going.
This song. That about covers it. From The Brothers
Karamazov to your new venture in the plumbing-supply
I love the summation of Odysseus’ trials that comprises the
body of the invocation. It’s Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey
in a nutshell, as concise a synopsis of the story of Everyman
as it gets. There’s the initial crime (which we all inevitably
commit), which ejects the hero from his homebound
complacency and propels him upon his wanderings, the
yearning for redemption, the untiring campaign to get
“home,” meaning back to God’s grace, back to himself.
I admire particularly the warning against the second crime, to
destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun. That’s the
felony that calls down soul-destruction: the employment of
the sacred for profane means. Prostitution. Selling out.
Lastly, the artist’s wish for his work: Make this tale live for us
in all its many bearings, O Muse.
That’s what we want, isn’t it? More than make it great, make
it live. And not from one angle only, but in all its many
We’ve said our prayer. We’re ready to work. Now what?
Concerning all acts of initiative (and
creation) there is one elementary truth,
the ignorance of which kills countless
ideas and splendid plans: that the
moment one definitely commits oneself,
then providence moves too. All sorts of
things occur to help one that would not
otherwise have occurred. A whole
stream of events issues from the
decision, raising in one’s favour all
manner of unforeseen incidents and
meetings and material assistance which
no man would have dreamed would
come his way. I have learned a deep
respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
“Whatever you can do, or dream you
can, begin it. Boldness has genius,
magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”
—W. H. Murray,
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Did you ever see Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s film about
angels among us? (City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicolas
Cage was the American version.) I believe it. I believe there
are angels. They’re here, but we can’t see them.
Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up.
Bump us along. Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah
describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence,
consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of
grass is an angel crying “Grow! Grow!” I’ll go further. I
believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel,
crying “Evolve! Evolve!”
Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want
to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass,
shouting to get our attention. But we can’t hear them. We’re
too distracted by our own nonsense.
Ah, but when we begin.
When we make a start.
When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face
of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in
the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the
inside of its shell. Angel midwives congregate around us; they
assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were
born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul,
our daimon, our genius.
When we make a beginning, we get out of our own way and
allow the angels to come in and do their job. They can speak
to us now and it makes them happy. It makes God happy.
Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into
And we’re it.
When I finish a day’s work, I head up into the hills for a hike.
I take a pocket tape recorder because I know that as my
surface mind empties with the walk, another part of me will
chime in and start talking.
The word “leer” on page 342 . . . it should be “ogle.”
You repeated yourself in Chapter 21. The last sentence is just
like that one in the middle of Chapter 7.
That’s the kind of stuff that comes. It comes to all of us, every
day, every minute. These paragraphs I’m writing now were
dictated to me yesterday; they replace a prior, weaker opening
to this chapter. I’m unspooling the new improved version
now, right off the recorder.
This process of self-revision and self-correction is so common
we don’t even notice. But it’s a miracle. And its implications
are staggering.
Who’s doing this revising anyway? What force is yanking at
our sleeves?
What does it tell us about the architecture of our psyches that,
without our exerting effort or even thinking about it, some
voice in our head pipes up to counsel us (and counsel us
wisely) on how to do our work and live our lives? Whose
voice is it? What software is grinding away, scanning
gigabytes, while we, our mainstream selves, are otherwise
Are these angels?
Are they muses?
Is this the Unconscious?
The Self?
Whatever it is, it’s smarter than we are. A lot smarter. It
doesn’t need us to tell it what to do. It goes to work all by
itself. It seems to want to work. It seems to enjoy it.
What exactly is it doing?
It’s organizing.
The principle of organization is built into nature. Chaos itself
is self-organizing. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their
orbits; rivers make their way to the sea.
When we, like God, set out to create a universe–a book, an
opera, a new business venture–the same principle kicks in.
Our screenplay resolves itself into a three-act structure; our
symphony takes shape into movements; our plumbing-supply
venture discovers its optimum chain of command. How do we
experience this? By having ideas. Insights pop into our heads
while we’re shaving or taking a shower or even, amazingly,
while we’re actually working. The elves behind this are smart.
If we forget something, they remind us. If we veer off-course,
they trim the tabs and steer us back.
What can we conclude from this?
Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our
conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our
material for us and alongside us.
This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing
the work; they’re just taking dictation. It’s also why
“noncreative people” hate “creative people.” Because they’re
jealous. They sense that artists and writers are tapped into
some grid of energy and inspiration that they themselves
cannot connect with.
Of course, this is nonsense.We’re all creative.We all have the
same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in
all our heads day by day, minute by minute.
In my twenties I drove tractor-trailers for a company called
Burton Lines in Durham, North Carolina. I wasn’t very good
at it; my self-destruction demons had me. Only blind luck
kept me from killing myself and any other poor suckers who
happened to be on the highway at the same time. It was a
tough period. I was broke, estranged from my wife and my
family. One night I had this dream:
I was part of the crew of an aircraft carrier. Only the ship
was stuck on dry land. It was still launching its jets and
doing its thing, but it was marooned half a mile from the
ocean. The sailors all knew how screwed up the situation
was; they felt it as a keen and constant distress. The only
bright spot was there was a Marine gunnery sergeant on
board nicknamed “Largo.” In the dream it seemed like
the coolest name anyone could possibly have. Largo. I
loved it. Largo was one of those hard-core senior
noncoms like the Burt Lancaster character, Warden, in
From Here to Eternity. The one guy on the ship who
knows exactly what’s going on, the tough old sarge who
makes all the decisions and actually runs the show.
But where was Largo? I was standing miserably by the
rail when the captain came over and started talking to
me. Even he was lost. It was his ship, but he didn’t know
how to get it off dry land. I was nervous, finding myself
in conversation with the brass, and couldn’t think of a
thing to say. The skipper didn’t seem to notice; he just
turned to me casually and said, “What the hell are we
gonna do, Largo?”
I woke up electrified. I was Largo! I was the salty old Gunny.
The power to take charge was in my hands; all I had to do was
believe it.
Where did this dream come from? Plainly its intent was
benevolent. What was its source? And what does it say about
the workings of the universe that such things happen at all?
Again, we’ve all had dreams like that. Again, they’re common
as dirt. So is the sunrise. That doesn’t make it any less a
Before I got to North Carolina I worked in the oilfields around
Buras, Louisiana. I lived in a bunkhouse with a bunch of other
transient geeks. One guy had picked up a paperback about
meditation in a bookstore in New Orleans; he was teaching
me how to do it. I used to go out to this dock after work and
see if I could get into it. One night this came:
I was sitting cross-legged when an eagle came and
landed on my shoulders. The eagle merged with me and
took off flying, so that my head became its head and my
arms its wings. It felt completely authentic. I could feel
the air under my wings, as solid as water feels when you
row in it with an oar. It was substantial. You could push
off against it. So this was how birds flew! I realized that
it was impossible for a bird to fall out of the sky; all it
would have to do was extend its wings; the solid air
would hold it up with the same power we feel when we
stick our hand out the window of a moving car. I was
pretty impressed with this movie that was playing in my
head but I still had no idea what it meant. I asked the
eagle, Hey, what am I supposed to be learning from this?
A voice answered (silently): You’re supposed to learn
that things that you think are nothing, as weightless as
air, are actually powerful substantial forces, as real and
as solid as earth.
I understood. The eagle was telling me that dreams, visions,
meditations such as this very one–things that I had till now
disdained as fantasy and illusion–were as real and as solid as
anything in my waking life.
I believed the eagle. I got the message. How could I not? I had
felt the solidness of the air. I knew he was telling the truth.
Which brings us back to the question: Where did the eagle
come from? Why did he show up at just the right time to tell
me just what I needed to hear?
Clearly some unseen intelligence had created him, giving him
form as an eagle so that I would understand what it wanted to
communicate. This intelligence was babying me along.
Keeping it simple. Making its point in terms so clear and
elementary that even someone as numb and asleep as I was
could understand.
Remember the movie Billy Jack starring Tom Laughlin? The
film and its sequels have long since decamped to cable, but
Tom Laughlin is still very much around. In addition to his
movie work, he’s a lecturer and author and a Jungianschooled psychologist whose specialty is working with people
who have been diagnosed with cancer. Tom Laughlin teaches
and leads workshops; here’s a paraphrase of something I
heard him say:
The moment a person learns he’s got terminal cancer, a
profound shift takes place in his psyche. At one stroke in the
doctor’s office he becomes aware of what really matters to
him. Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed allimportant suddenly appear meaningless, while people and
concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on
supreme importance.
Maybe, he realizes, working this weekend on that big deal at
the office isn’t all that vital. Maybe it’s more important to fly
cross-country for his grandson’s graduation. Maybe it isn’t so
crucial that he have the last word in the fight with his wife.
Maybe instead he should tell her how much she means to him
and how deeply he has always loved her.
Other thoughts occur to the patient diagnosed as terminal.
What about that gift he had for music? What became of the
passion he once felt to work with the sick and the homeless?
Why do these unlived lives return now with such power and
Faced with our imminent extinction, Tom Laughlin believes,
all assumptions are called into question. What does our life
mean? Have we lived it right? Are there vital acts we’ve left
unperformed, crucial words unspoken? Is it too late?
Tom Laughlin draws a diagram of the psyche, a Jungianderived model that looks something like this:
The Ego, Jung tells us, is that part of the psyche that we think
of as “I.” Our conscious intelligence. Our everyday brain that
thinks, plans and runs the show of our day-to-day life.
The Self, as Jung defined it, is a greater entity, which includes
the Ego but also incorporates the Personal and Collective
Unconscious. Dreams and intuitions come from the Self. The
archetypes of the unconscious dwell there. It is, Jung
believed, the sphere of the soul.
What happens in that instant when we learn we may soon die,
Tom Laughlin contends, is that the seat of our consciousness
It moves from the Ego to the Self.
The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we
discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall
away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly-grounded
This is how Tom Laughlin’s foundation battles cancer. He
counsels his clients not just to make that shift mentally but to
live it out in their lives. He supports the housewife in
resuming her career in social work, urges the businessman to
return to the violin, assists the Vietnam vet to write his novel.
Miraculously, cancers go into remission. People recover. Is it
possible, Tom Laughlin asks, that the disease itself evolved as
a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives?
Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us
in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves,
now, by living these lives out?
Here’s what I think. I think angels make their home in the
Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego.
The fight is between the two.
The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just
the way they are.
What is the Ego, anyway? Since this is my book, I’ll define it
my way.
The Ego is that part of the psyche that believes in material
The Ego’s job is to take care of business in the real world. It’s
an important job. We couldn’t last a day without it. But there
are worlds other than the real world, and this is where the Ego
runs into trouble.
Here’s what the Ego believes:
1) Death is real. The Ego believes that our existence is
defined by our physical flesh. When the body dies, we
die. There is no life beyond life.
2) Time and space are real. The Ego is analog. It
believes that to get from A to Z we have to pass
through B, C, and D. To get from breakfast to supper
we have to live the whole day.
3) Every individual is different and separate from
every other. The Ego believes that I am distinct from
you. The twain cannot meet. I can hurt you and it
won’t hurt me.
4) The predominant impulse of life is self-preservation.
Because our existence is physical and thus vulnerable
to innumerable evils, we live and act out of fear in all
we do. It is wise, the Ego believes, to have children to
carry on our line when we die, to achieve great things
that will live after us, and to buckle our seat belts.
5) There is no God. No sphere exists except the physical
and no rules apply except those of the material world.
These are the principles the Ego lives by. They are sound solid
Here’s what the Self believes:
1) Death is an illusion. The soul endures and evolves
through infinite manifestations.
2) Time and space are illusions. Time and space operate
only in the physical sphere, and even here, don’t apply
to dreams, visions, transports. In other dimensions we
move “swift as thought” and inhabit multiple planes
3) All beings are one. If I hurt you, I hurt myself.
4) The supreme emotion is love. Union and mutual
assistance are the imperatives of life. We are all in this
5) God is all there is. Everything that is, is God in one
form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in
which we live and move and have our being. Infinite
planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and
infused by the spirit of God.
Have you ever wondered why the slang terms for intoxication
are so demolition-oriented? Stoned, smashed, hammered. It’s
because they’re talking about the Ego. It’s the Ego that gets
blasted, waxed, plastered. We demolish the Ego to get to the
The margins of the Self touch upon the Divine Ground.
Meaning the Mystery, the Void, the source of Infinite Wisdom
and Consciousness.
Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When
we meditate we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray,
when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.
When the dervish whirls, when the yogi chants, when the
sadhu mutilates his flesh; when penitents crawl a hundred
miles on their knees, when Native Americans pierce
themselves in the Sun Dance, when suburban kids take
Ecstasy and dance all night at a rave, they’re seeking the Self.
When we deliberately alter our consciousness in any way,
we’re trying to find the Self. When the alcoholic collapses in
the gutter, that voice that tells him, “I’ll save you,” comes
from the Self.
The Self is our deepest being.
The Self is united to God.
The Self is incapable of falsehood.
The Self, like the Divine Ground that permeates it, is evergrowing and ever-evolving.
The Self speaks for the future.
That’s why the Ego hates it.
The Ego hates the Self because when we seat our
consciousness in the Self, we put the ego out of business.
The Ego doesn’t want us to evolve. The Ego runs the show
right now. It likes things just the way they are.
The instinct that pulls us toward art is the impulse to evolve,
to learn, to heighten and elevate our consciousness. The Ego
hates this. Because the more awake we become, the less we
need the Ego.
The Ego hates it when the awakening writer sits down at the
The Ego hates it when the aspiring painter steps up before the
The Ego hates it because it knows that these souls are
awakening to a call, and that that call comes from a plane
nobler than the material one and from a source deeper and
more powerful than the physical.
The Ego hates the prophet and the visionary because they
propel the race upward. The Ego hated Socrates and Jesus,
Luther and Galileo, Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King.
The Ego hates artists because they are the pathfinders and
bearers of the future, because each one dares, in James
Joyce’s phrase, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the
uncreated conscience of my race.”
Such evolution is life-threatening to the Ego. It reacts
accordingly. It summons its cunning, marshals its troops.
The Ego produces Resistance and attacks the awakening
Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear.
But fear of what?
Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of
bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of
groveling when we try to make it on our own, and of
groveling when we give up and come crawling back to where
we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or
disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of
sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of betraying our race,
our ’hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being
ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training,
the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for,
that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of
launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of
passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot
recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this
cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness.
Fear of insanity. Fear of death.
These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the
Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that
even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it.
Fear That We Will Succeed.
That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess.
That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we
truly are.
This is the most terrifying prospect a human being can face,
because it ejects him at one go (he imagines) from all the
tribal inclusions his psyche is wired for and has been for fifty
million years.
We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are.
More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear
that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice
tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the
capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our
flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s
true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass
through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.
We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove
worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us. What will
become of us? We will lose our friends and family, who will
no longer recognize us. We will wind up alone, in the cold
void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold on to.
Of course this is exactly what happens. But here’s the trick.
We wind up in space, but not alone. Instead we are tapped into
an unquenchable, undepletable, inexhaustible source of
wisdom, consciousness, companionship. Yeah, we lose
friends. But we find friends too, in places we never thought to
look. And they’re better friends, truer friends. And we’re
better and truer to them.
Do you believe me?
Do you have kids?
Then you know that not one of them popped out as tabula
rasa, a blank slate. Each came into this world with a distinct
and unique personality, an identity so set that you can fling
stardust and great balls of fire at it and not morph it by one
micro-dot. Each kid was who he was. Even identical twins,
constituted of the exact same genetic material, were radically
different from Day One and always would be.
Personally I’m with Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God who is our home.
In other words, none of us are born as passive generic blobs
waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us. Instead we
show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated
Another way of thinking of it is this: We’re not born with
unlimited choices.
We can’t be anything we want to be.
We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We
have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are
who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.
Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some
ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we
already are and become it.
If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter.
If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to
become a mother.
If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and
injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to
In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one
of two ways—by their rank within a hierarchy (a hen in a
pecking order, a wolf in a pack) or by their connection to a
territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf).
This is how individuals—humans as well as animals—
achieve psychological security. They know where they stand.
The world makes sense.
Of the two orientations, the hierarchical seems to be the
default setting. It’s the one that kicks in automatically when
we’re kids. We run naturally in packs and cliques; without
thinking about it, we know who’s the top dog and who’s the
underdog. And we know our own place. We define ourselves,
instinctively it seems, by our position within the schoolyard,
the gang, the club.
It’s only later in life, usually after a stern education in the
university of hard knocks, that we begin to explore the
territorial alternative.
For some of us, this saves our lives.
Most of us define ourselves hierarchically and don’t even
know it. It’s hard not to. School, advertising, the entire
materialist culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by
others’ opinions. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way
and everyone will love you.
What is a hierarchy, anyway?
Hollywood is a hierarchy. So are Washington, Wall Street, and
the Daughters of the American Revolution.
High school is the ultimate hierarchy. And it works; in a pond
that small, the hierarchical orientation succeeds. The
cheerleader knows where she fits, as does the dweeb in the
Chess Club. Each has found a niche. The system works.
There’s a problem with the hierarchical orientation, though.
When the numbers get too big, the thing breaks down. A
pecking order can hold only so many chickens. In
Massapequa High, you can find your place. Move to
Manhattan and the trick no longer works. New York City is
too big to function as a hierarchy. So is IBM. So is Michigan
State. The individual in multitudes this vast feels
overwhelmed, anonymous. He is submerged in the mass. He’s
We humans seem to have been wired by our evolutionary past
to function most comfortably in a tribe of twenty to, say, eight
hundred. We can push it maybe to a few thousand, even to
five figures. But at some point it maxes out. Our brains can’t
file that many faces. We thrash around, flashing our badges of
status (Hey, how do you like my Lincoln Navigator?) and
wondering why nobody gives a shit.
We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It
doesn’t work anymore.
For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.
Let’s examine why. First, let’s look at what happens in a
hierarchical orientation.
An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking
order will:
1) Compete against all others in the order, seeking to
elevate his station by advancing against those above
him, while defending his place against those beneath.
2) Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his
rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when
he’s high and most miserable when he’s low.
3) Act toward others based upon their rank in the
hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.
4) Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it
produces on others. He will act for others, dress for
others, speak for others, think for others.
But the artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his
calling. If you don’t believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced
masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his
whole life.
The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for
its own sake.
To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is
prostitution. Recall the fate of Odysseus’ men who slew the
cattle of the sun.
Their own witlessness cast them away.
The fools! To destroy for meat the oxen
of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the sun-god
blotted out the day of their return.
In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward. Meeting someone
new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How
can this person advance my standing?
In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one
place he can’t look is that place he must: within.
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer
who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to
work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks
what the market is looking for.
The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior
to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more
accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared
of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself
thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to
anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it
to them.
In other words, the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what
he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not
ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think
is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a
deal for?
The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he
takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders.
It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of
American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a
hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold
out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of
yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.
I was starving as a screenwriter when the idea for The Legend
of Bagger Vance came to me. It came as a book, not a movie. I
met with my agent to give him the bad news. We both knew
that first novels take forever and sell for nothing. Worse, a
novel about golf, even if we could find a publisher, is a
straight shot to the remainder bin.
But the Muse had me. I had to do it. To my amazement, the
book succeeded critically and commercially better than
anything I’d ever done, and others since have been lucky too.
Why? My best guess is this: I trusted what I wanted, not what
I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was
interesting, and left its reception to the gods.
The artist can’t do his work hierarchically. He has to work
There’s a three-legged coyote who lives up the hill from me.
All the garbage cans in the neighborhood belong to him. It’s
his territory. Every now and then some four-legged intruder
tries to take over. They can’t do it. On his home turf, even a
peg-leg critter is invincible.
We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological.
Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the
parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down
to write, I’m on mine.
What are the qualities of a territory?
1) A territory provides sustenance. Runners know what
a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and
yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory
is. The swimmer who towels off after finishing her
laps feels a helluva lot better than the tired, cranky
person who dove into the pool thirty minutes earlier.
2) A territory sustains us without any external input.
A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put
in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives
it back to us in the form of well-being.
When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effortrequiring activity) banishes depression, this is what
they mean.
3) A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team
with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you
only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juice.
4) A territory can only be claimed by work. When
Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own
turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years
of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give,
it gives back.
5) A territory returns exactly what you put in.
Territories are fair. Every erg of energy you put in
goes infallibly into your account. A territory never
devalues. A territory never crashes. What you
deposited, you get back, dollar-for-dollar.
What’s your territory?
The act of creation is by definition territorial. As the motherto-be bears her child within her, so the artist or innovator
contains her new life. No one can help her give it birth. But
neither does she need any help.
The mother and the artist are watched over by heaven.
Nature’s wisdom knows when it’s time for the life within to
switch from gills to lungs. It knows down to the nanosecond
when the first tiny fingernails may appear.
When the artist acts hierarchically, she short-circuits the
Muse. She insults her and pisses her off.
The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They
don’t create the new life, they only bear it. This is why birth is
such a humbling experience. The new mom weeps in awe at
the little miracle in her arms. She knows it came out of her but
not from her, through her but not of her.
When the artist works territorially, she reveres heaven. She
aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the
universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life. By
doing her work for its own sake, she sets herself at the service
of these forces.
Remember, as artists we don’t know diddly. We’re winging it
every day. For us to try to second-guess our Muse the way a
hack second-guesses his audience is condescension to heaven.
It’s blasphemy and sacrilege.
Instead let’s ask ourselves like that new mother: What do I
feel growing inside me? Let me bring that forth, if I can, for
its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can
advance my standing.
How can we tell if our orientation is territorial or hierarchical?
One way is to ask ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious,
what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six
friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their
voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re
operating hierarchically.
We’re seeking the good opinion of others.
What would Arnold Schwarzenegger do on a freaky day? He
wouldn’t phone his buddies; he’d head for the gym. He
wouldn’t care if the place was empty, if he didn’t say a word
to a soul. He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough
to bring him back to his center.
His orientation is territorial.
Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I
were the last person on earth, would I still do it?
If you’re all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation
makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still
pursue that activity, congratulations. You’re doing it
If Arnold Schwarzenegger were the last man on earth, he’d
still go the gym. Stevie Wonder would still pound the piano.
The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from
the impression it makes on others. I have a friend who’s nuts
for clothes. If she were the last woman on earth, she would
shoot straight to Givenchy or St. Laurent, smash her way in,
and start pillaging. In her case, it wouldn’t be to impress
others. She just loves clothes. That’s her territory.
Now: What about ourselves as artists?
How do we do our work? Hierarchically or territorially?
If we were freaked out, would we go there first?
If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at
the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?
Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the
supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He
replied: “Contempt for death.”
For us as artists, read “failure.” Contempt for failure is our
cardinal virtue. By confining our attention territorially to our
own thoughts and actions—in other words, to the work and its
demands—we cut the earth from beneath the blue-painted,
shield-banging, spear-brandishing foe.
When Krishna instructed Arjuna that we have a right to our
labor but not to the fruits of our labor, he was counseling the
warrior to act territorially, not hierarchically. We must do our
work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
Then there’s the third way proffered by the Lord of
Discipline, which is beyond both hierarchy and territory. That
is to do the work and give it to Him. Do it as an offering to
Give the act to me.
Purged of hope and ego,
Fix your attention on the soul.
Act and do for me.
The work comes from heaven anyway. Why not give it back?
To labor in this way, The Bhagavad-Gita tells us, is a form of
meditation and a supreme species of spiritual devotion. It also,
I believe, conforms most closely to Higher Reality. In fact, we
are servants of the Mystery. We were put here on earth to act
as agents of the Infinite, to bring into existence that which is
not yet, but which will be, through us.
Every breath we take, every heartbeat, every evolution of
every cell comes from God and is sustained by God every
second, just as every creation, invention, every bar of music
or line of verse, every thought, vision, fantasy, every dumbass flop and stroke of genius comes from that infinite
intelligence that created us and the universe in all its
dimensions, out of the Void, the field of infinite potential,
primal chaos, the Muse. To acknowledge that reality, to efface
all ego, to let the work come through us and give it back
freely to its source, that, in my opinion, is as true to reality as
it gets.
In the end, we arrive at a kind of model of the artist’s world,
and that model is that there exist other, higher planes of
reality, about which we can prove nothing, but from which
arise our lives, our work and our art. These spheres are trying
to communicate with ours. When Blake said Eternity is in
love with the creations of time, he was referring to those
planes of pure potential, which are timeless, placeless,
spaceless, but which long to bring their visions into being
here, in this time-bound, space-defined world.
The artist is the servant of that intention, those angels, that
Muse. The enemy of the artist is the small-time Ego, which
begets Resistance, which is the dragon that guards the gold.
That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors,
artists over time acquire modesty and humility. They may,
some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public.
But alone with the work they are chaste and humble. They
know they are not the source of the creations they bring into
being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing
and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.
Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter,
a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can
only be answered by action.
Do it or don’t do it.
It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure
cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you
don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.
You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the
Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique
gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one
millimeter farther along its path back to God.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the
part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.
Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.
For their generous permission to quote from their works, the author
acknowledges the following sources:
Written by: John Lee Hooker/Bernard Besman © 1998 Careers-BMG
Music Publishing, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Copyright 1970 (Renewed) Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and Julian Lennon.
All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 8 Music Square
West, Nashville, TN 37203. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Reprinted by permission of Lawrence Kasdan from THE BIG CHILL ©
1983. All rights reserved.
Written by: Frank S. Nugent © 1956
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of the Loeb
Loeb Classical Library Vol. 183, translated by E.C. Marchant,
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925, 1968. The Loeb
Classical Library® is a registered trademark of the President and
Fellows of Harvard College.
Approximately 94 words (p 48) from PHAEDRUS AND THE SEVENTH
AND EIGHTH LETTERS by Plato, translated by Walter Hamilton
(Penguin Classics, 1973). Copyright © Walter Hamilton, 1973.
Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of the Loeb
ETHICS, Loeb Classical Library Vol. 73, translated by H. Rackham,
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926. The Loeb Classical
Library® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of
Harvard College.
1951 J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.